HC Deb 22 May 1962 vol 660 cc229-34
Mr. Loughlin

On a point of order. I wish to raise with you, Mr. Speaker, a matter of importance to some hon. Members, perhaps of greater importance than it appears on the surface because of the increasing tendency of the Government to insist upon additional sittings of Standing Committees. Perhaps hon. Members will see the significance of that in a moment. I have informed the Minister of Power and the Chairman of the Standing Committee concerned that I was raising this matter with you.

In Standing Committee B we are dealing with the Pipe-lines Bill [Lords] and this morning we passed a Motion which calls upon the Committee to sit on Tuesday mornings, Tuesday afternoons at four o'clock and on Thursday mornings. The effect of the Motion is that the Committee is due to begin its proceedings for the afternoon session at four o'clock this afternoon. Some hon. Members were not present at this morning's meeting because of other parliamentary duties, and the House will readily accept that on some occasions even the most attentive Members are unable to get to Committee meetings.

I raised with the Chairman of the Standing Committee and the Minister the position in which those Members found themselves. They were called upon, almost on the spur of the moment, to attend a meeting at four o'clock this afternoon without having what I regard as due and adequate notice of the meeting. I received from the attendants of the House a notice of that meeting, which was handed to me at three minutes to two o'clock today. I may have received early notification, or late notification, but it is a gross abuse of the procedure of the House to expect hon. Members to attend Committee meetings at one or two hours' notice.

There is one other additional factor about which I should like your Ruling. The Standing Committee is discussing Amendments in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Warbey) and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer). In fairness to the Committee, both those hon. Members ought to be present this afternoon. But it so happens that Amendments in the names of those two hon. Members are being discussed in Committee on the Finance Bill on the Floor of the House this afternoon, immediately we go into Committee. It is physically impossible for those two hon. Members to do both jobs. The issue is whether they have a responsibility to their constituents to participate in discussion of the Finance Bill, which is the most important Bill to come before the House in the course of a Session, or go to the Standing Committee.

These difficulties were explained to the Minister concerned, but he could not care less. It is incumbent upon hon. Members to safeguard themselves against abuses by the Executive and I ask you for your Ruling, especially on the question of adequate notice of the meeting of a Committee.

Mr. Warbey

I support the submission of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) as one of the two hon. Members who are personally involved in a particular difficulty arising out of this situation.

As my hon. Friend has said, my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) and I have our names to an Amendment which is now before Standing Committee B and on which discussion will be resumed in a quarter of an hour. The hon. Member for Deptford and I also have our names to Amendments which are under discussion in Committee of the whole House on the Finance Bill. We started discussing those Amendments last evening and the Committee adjourned until today. We shall be asked to resume discussion on those Amendments in a few moments.

Can you tell us, Mr. Speaker, how it is possible for two hon. Members, who are called to attend two Committees meeting at precisely the same time in order to move and discuss and divide on Amendments which are being considered by those Committees simultaneously, both raising matters of considerable constitutional importance, to perform their duty to their constituents?

Mr. Speaker

I rule on the only point of order which I can see to arise, and which is the adequacy of notice. I do not officially know what happens in Committee, but I understand that the Committee reached its decision about afternoon sittings at about twelve noon. So far as the Officers of the House are concerned, notice of that decision was available from 12.30 onwards. I do not think that we could do it better than that. There would be no irregularity involved in notice in those circumstances.

Hon. Members will appreciate that the rest of what has been said does not produce any point of order for me. I would have added on the question of notice that although I do not know officially what happened, it would rather appear that the question of having these afternoon sittings began to be discussed in the Committee last Thursday, so that members of the Committee following the matter might have had a hint that it would be going on today. I might be wrong about that. The essence of the point for me is about giving notice as early as possible. That I have done. For the rest, there is no appeal to me from the decision of the Committee which ought to have taken these matters into account before reaching its decision.

Mr. T. Fraser

I think that the question of notice is a matter for the House as a whole, Sir. On Thursday of last week, the Minister proposed that we should meet on Tuesday afternoons, and last Thursday evening a notice was sent out to every member of the Standing Committee originally intimating that the Committee would meet this morning at half-past ten and this afternoon at four o'clock. But before the notice was sent out last Thursday, the authorities of the House had perforce to score out the information that we would meet at four o'clock this afternoon, so that every member of the Committee really got an intimation last Friday that the Committee would not meet at four o'clock this afternoon, because the reference to four o'clock was scored out in red ink.

This morning we continued with a discussion which terminated at about twelve o'clock, by which time the Committee had decided that it would meet again at four o'clock. The Motion did not say four o'clock this afternoon, but merely four o'clock on Tuesday afternoons.

I submit that as a notice had to be printed after that and was, in fact, delivered by hand to those who were available within the Palace of Westminster at two o'clock, hon. Members who were not within the Palace at that time have not had adequate notice of this meeting at four o'clock this day.

If a Committee decides in the forenoon to sit in the afternoon of that day, I think that it would be in accordance with the dignity of the House and of Standing Committees if the afternoon sitting took place the following week and not in the afternoon of the day in which the decision was taken, so that hon. Members might have timely notice of the intentions of the Committee.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will not confuse my function with those of others in this context. I think I rightly say that as far as Officers of the House under me are concerned the most adequate notice possible was given. I do not think that anybody could dispute that. The decision was taken at twelve noon, and the notification was given as soon as possible thereafter. We could not do better.

I think that the other argument which the hon. Member was putting to me would be more properly addressed to the Chairman in Committee as a ground for adjourning when the Committee meets this afternoon. I cannot, because it would not be proper to do so, express a view about the merits of the case.

Mr. Loughlin

I should like to make it plain, Sir, and I ought to have done before, that I did not intend to cast any reflections on the action of the Officers of the House. They got the information out more speedily than I would have expected them to do in the circumstances.

The point that I want to reinforce is that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser), that it is an abuse of the proceedings of the House for a Minister to insist on a Committee meeting when it is possible that some members of the Committee will not be available.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The interests of the House in general must be considered. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, which has been heard. This is not a matter on which I can assist him.

Mr. S. Silverman

Without wishing to press the matter too hard, has it not always been the custom of Committees when they decide, contrary to the normal practice, to meet in the afternoon, to make the decision operative only at the succeeding meeting of the Committee and not on the day when the decision is taken, precisely to avoid this embarrassment?

Mr. Speaker

I cannot purport to have any knowledge of the practice of Standing Committees. I think that that goes back to the suggestion I made to the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser).